Inmate Art Captivates the Crowd

March 20, 2014

By Gail Jacobs, Campbell United Methodist Church
Stunning! Incredible! Beautiful! Wow! These exclamations may still be reverberating within the Halls of Justice as they were echoed over and over again by visitors who attended the opening of Transformation: Art from Within, an exhibit displaying a collection of artwork created by women and men incarcerated at the Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas, California.
Visitors lingered beside each piece of art, absorbing each description and every word written by the inmates, seemingly hesitant to move on and leave the art behind. The more than 200 people who came to see the art were visibly moved by what they saw. It's hard not to have a preconceived notion of what the art might look like -- simplistic, rudimentary -- basically something produced by a non-artist. But what was hanging on the walls of the Santa Clara County Hall of Justice was anything but elementary. Many of the visitors were caught off-guard by the emotions that arose within them as they wiped away their tears.
The guests got to know the artists as each piece revealed the inmates' innermost thoughts, hopes, and prayers. Visitors marveled at the maturity, depth and soul of the pieces. Art aficionados commented that several of the pieces were museum quality. Many were in awe and described the works as "phenomenal,” “extraordinary,” and “stunning." And others simply had no words...
The remarkable art installation was just a representation of the hundreds of art pieces created by the inmates. Campbell United Methodist Church's Art and Spirit Ministry team has been leading classes at the jail for more than two years. The team is able to offer this unique ministry thanks to the support and guidance of CIC (Correctional Institutions Chaplaincy) Ministries and the passion, dedication, vision and creative leadership of Campbell UMC's Elaine Bondonno.
Elaine describes Transformation: Art from Within as "an exhibit that affirms how art enables incarcerated men and women to tap into their humanity, their spirit and their gifts. Recognizing the dignity of their humanity, and the commonalities we share, is essential for the incarcerated. The art and writing show there is more to them than their crime. Their work exhibits introspection, promise and hope."
Chaplain Louann Roberts, CIC Ministries, has worked with Elaine and the team tirelessly. She states the Art and Spirit Ministry "helps the incarcerated men and women who created these beautiful pieces to have the opportunity in jail to become better than they were before their incarceration -- more confident, more faith-filled and more hope-filled for their future and the future of their families."
Elaine believes the Ministry enriches the spiritual and creative lives of the incarcerated. "Art is the vehicle that offers opportunities to learn skills necessary for life within and outside of jail," she says. “Each piece has been created in community by a diverse group of inmates. One of the skills we’re trying to demonstrate is working together as a team and then taking those skills with them when they are released from jail. The return of these inmates to the community calls us to provide programs which instill other, more spiritual and loving ways to live." The inmates themselves have noted that community art has encouraged cooperation, unity and peace within the facility.
At the event, Elaine stated, “It is astounding what comes from people when they perceive their own humanity, and doing art as a focus is one way to achieve that. Art takes people to a different place -- it allows self-expression; it teaches skills people didn’t know they had.”
Creating beautiful works of art has brought vibrant colors into a drab, achromatic environment. It also has allowed the inmates to tap into their creative side; to make them aware of their assets, to increase their sense of self-worth. Having these inner resources to draw upon provides ways to better cope with current or future situations. The inmates themselves have noted that community art has encouraged cooperation, unity and peace within the facility.
But this art exhibit also gave the general public insight into the nameless, the faceless, the forgotten -- the incarcerated. Several visitors took the opportunity to create a prayer flag, writing messages of love and hope for the inmates. The art restored a personal identity to the "invisible" and gave them a voice -- and they were heard. Several visitors commented that the art provided them with the ability to relate to the inmates -- to see the common humanity and spirit we all share -- and to know that transformation is indeed possible. Volunteer Gillian Harrington noted, “With this art exhibit, the women and men certainly sent their messages of hope and grace out to the world, and not just on prayer flags.”
Campbell UMC's Art and Spirit Ministry team and CIC Ministries wish to acknowledge and thank the Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara for hosting the exhibition opening and to the Office of the Sheriff for providing their generous support. Also, deep appreciation is expressed for all those who allow this ministry to continue through their financial support, including the California Nevada Annual Conference Advocacy and Justice Committee, who awarded a Peace with Justice Grant, and the many individuals who have provided contributions of money and art supplies.
More visitors' comments are available on “Voices of the Visitors.” And you can watch a video to see the amazing variety of art produced by the inmates: from prayer flags to the three-panel "More than Stripes;" from peace cards to a stunning weaving; and from thoughtful Haiku poetry to the uplifting "Metamorphosis," whose genesis was pages from the California Penal Code -- and so much more!
Following the Hall of Justice show, Santa Clara County Supervisors sponsored the exhibit's next location at the Government Building. Multitudes of couples who were getting married in the building on Valentine's Day eagerly created a long line to be photographed in front of the beautiful weaving!
The art is now on display at its third locale and can be seen in the main lobby of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, where one of the exhibit's themes, "healing," is quite relevant and will be able to touch and comfort thousands of people who come through the doors. The facility is open to the public; but if you wish to organize a docent-led tour, please contact Rev. Louann Roberts with CIC Ministries (408) 957-5822. The team will continue looking for additional venues so more people can experience this inspirational exhibition.
For those who won't have the opportunity to see this exhibit in person, a slideshow is available that showcases the opening of the art exhibit.